The Problem with Minimalism (And How I’m OK With Consumption)

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This past weekend I watched Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. I was already pretty familiar and with the growing trend of Minimalism, where people strive to live more intentionally with the bare minimum number of possessions needed. It’s always seemed quite attractive in theory. However, I was mostly drawn to the documentary because of all the hype I was hearing. I assumed it would simply affirm our need to be more calculated and resourceful with our possessions, and I assumed I’d be happy that so many people were celebrating this message. But, instead, it left me with a nagging tension all week. I eventually realized that Minimalism is more than just a call to simple living; it’s an entire ideology that comes with a lot of implications and repercussions. Ones that we’d be wise to consider before wholly swallowing this excessive idea of Minimalism. 

Now, before I get started, I’ve got to highlight Minimalism’s positive points. Having moved four times in eight years of marriage, Josh and I have a low tolerance for “stuff” that we have to pack, move, reorganize, and maintain. We also have an equally low tolerance for spending excess money. We spent our first year of marriage in 2008 in a $350-per-month garage apartment, eating off $25 a week, and (thanks to medical school debt) we’ve had an acute awareness of line items and materialistic values ever since. This doesn’t mean our budgeting is anywhere near perfect, but we’re cognizant of our need to wisely steward possessions, and therefore see a lot of merit in Minimalism.

Also, aside from its reminders to steward possessions well, another positive point of Minimalism is that it reminds humanity of the important things we should be considering:

We’re wired to become dissatisfied.

We can live more deliberately with less.

People are longing for meaning and purpose.

We should love people and use things instead of vice versa.

Having fewer possessions helps community living.

There’s clearly room for a positive range of responses to Minimalism, so I’m not so bold to think I’ve arrived at the answer, but I do feel committed to parsing out all sides.

So, here we go. My problems with Minimalism–

It’s Not Realistic

Relevancy is everything, right? It seems 99% realistic for a California bachelor to be a minimalist–especially since he doesn’t need seasonal wardrobe variety and cold weather gear. The documentary makes a few nods to people with small children, but it’s marginal, and they appear to be generously spaced apart in age, living in picturesque California (or the like) with the glorious, sunny world as their playground. I’d need a lot less for indoor living, too, if I lived with that backdrop.

California living--it makes minimalism easier
California living

However, this idea loses traction with a midwest momma, hunkering down in her home through freezing temps with three kids under the age of five. I’ll submit myself as case study.

If I get rid of 95% of my toys, I will pay a price. I’m sure a true minimalist would look in my playroom and get heart palpitations. But, despite assumptions, we purge our toys often. Our goal is to keep toys open-ended and purposeful, but still, some are played with infrequently, yet they still serve a purpose in our rotation of helping my children develop, create, and engage. The many options help us survive the long, hard days of winter.

We fully embrace our full range of art supplies for creative indoor days.
We fully embrace our full range of art supplies for creative indoor days.
He only plays with trains here and there, but when he does, it keeps him busy for the morning!
He only plays with trains here and there, but when he does, it keeps him busy for the morning.
While siblings are drawing and playing with trains, he's strategizing a game plan for monster truck versus komodo dragon. I'm so thankful for good open-ended toys to keep these kiddos busy.
Make-believe play with Komodo dragons and Monster trucks

And, dare I get rid of something that one child loses interest in? I was on the brink of donating our space-eating Megablocks set last winter, but my husband convinced me to wait until our youngest could give it a chance. He was right. After moving the blocks and stand out of my “donate” pile and into my 1-year-old’s space, I learned that his love for building Megablocks keeps him busy for an entire HOUR. In case you’re unfamiliar with a 1-year-old, please note this is magical.

Despite my desire to free up space, it would be wasteful in many situations to discard items during periods of disuse in order to gain more personal sanity and physical square-footage.

I’m also reminded that time is our most valuable resource. If I were to try and be a minimalist at the zoo, I would certainly save material resources, but it would come at the expense of my time, and therefore nullify many positives of my minimalist endeavors. Consider taking reusable wipes and diapers to the zoo with three small children. I would spend half the zoo trip washing excrement out in the sinks. Just lovely.

An outing with baby in the winter
An outing with baby in the winter
And, don't forget if baby gets fussy, momma will need to have a baby carrier on hand in addition to a stroller
And, don’t forget if baby gets fussy, momma will need to have a baby carrier on hand in addition to a stroller

I’d also have to take whole foods in glass containers for lunch. Eating in those glass containers would, of course, be an ordeal since we’re dealing with glass, toddlers, and washing. If the weather is hot, we obviously need lots of liquids, bug repellant, hats, and sunblock–all reasonable items to carry in a knapsack. But, if the weather is cold, I need gloves, hats, car seat jackets, and coats with me. To carry this, I need a stroller, lest I resemble an overstuffed yak trying to become my own zoo exhibit.

Couldn’t I just rent or borrow strollers, so I’m not adding to the mass consumerism of stroller production? Sure, but that eventually adds up to the price of a stroller and is therefore fiscally irresponsible. Borrowing a stroller would likewise consume my fuel and time in my efforts to acquire it. So, buying a stroller (especially a used one) is the most responsible move. Now, please hear me: Minimalist principles are helpful when packing for a zoo trip, but when I become slave to them, allowing guilt to reign and reason to recede, it’s problematic. And, quite miserable.

It’s Self-Centered, and a Touch Self-Righteous

I’m sure it feels really good to know where every item belongs, how big your family will ever be, and ultimately feel like you’re the captain of your ship. At several points in the documentary, there’s a call to “recognize that this life is yours” and that this movement is “all about finding happiness.” The implication is that living in such a controlled manner essentially frees you up to please yourself, but it stifles our ability to offer much to others.

Also, my sentimental, gift-giving heart mourns a bit at the implications of a minimalistic lifestyle on celebratory functions. Aunt Rose, for instance, now feels the pressure to find her beloved nephew the perfect gift that will be received for its deepest meaning and everyday usage. Our focus has shifted from being an appreciative recipient of a gift to being the arbiter of a gift’s worthiness. Don’t get me wrong–it’s clearly okay (and even responsible) to donate gifts we won’t use, but we can become so caught up in justifying each item’s inherent worth that it takes away from the enjoyment of simply receiving an item with gratitude.

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Also, the minimalist experts admit that this lifestyle means they must “be hanging out with the people with the same values.” There’s a tacit vibe that they believe they’ve found enlightenment while the rest of us simpletons flail around excessively at Walmart on Black Friday.

It’s Privileged

Going back to my and my husband’s story, we’ve learned that a basic fallback question when making purchases is, “How do we save the most money while keeping the least amount of material possessions?” And, you know what? That question often requires us to purchase more than we’d like. Because, cash-strapped folks can’t afford to be picky about what they buy.

As easy as it is to dog the consumerist, one has to realize the immense privilege of being able to buy fewer high-quality items and toss out unworthy possessions ad infinitum. For example, I present our upstairs closet. I’d like to toss the nebulizer, the humidifier, the air filter, extra blankets, and half our medicines. They don’t propel me to think about life’s meaning, nor do they give me excess joy. I only use the nebulizer maybe once every two years, and I only use the humidifier a couple months out of the winter. But, what if I just waited to buy/borrow a $50 humidifier for my congested child only when I absolutely needed it? I’d end up with a suffering child due to my stubborn refusal to give up precious real estate in my home. As for the blankets, I could start telling house guests to bring their own linens. But, that won’t work if they’re a singular suitcase-carrying minimalist, too.

Also, if you have a truly good capsule wardrobe (i.e. 33 pieces like suggested), it will need to be high quality. Do I have a few pieces in my closet that I wear repeatedly? Yes, I have one pair of Buckle jeans that I’ve worn for years, as well as an amazingly warm, red, goose-down vest that everyone in my family is sick of seeing. Both of those items were well over $100 originally (Price is relative, but $100 is a whopping lot for me), and it took several months of waiting to snag them at a reasonable price.

Me in the ubiquitous red vest. I figured a picture of it on the Interwebs would add to its cost-per-wear, which is already extremely good.
Me in the ubiquitous red vest. I figured a picture of it on the Interwebs would add to its cost-per-wear, which is already extremely good.

My point is that well-fitting, good quality items require quite the price tag and/or a great time investment to find them at an affordable price. Even then, if one can afford to pay those prices upfront, the cost-per-wear is often still more expensive than having double the wardrobe from Target, for instance. Consequently, it takes a privileged person to say, “I have a well-curated capsule wardrobe and will therefore not be buying another dress shirt at Target.”

Another privilege is to have the personality that can pull off this vagabond living. Those documented had charismatic personalities, which I conjecture helps them greatly in spontaneously finding resources and shelter.

It’s A Slippery Slope

Down with the big corporations! Down with free-market advertising! Down with inequality! 

This is a bit loaded and worthy of its own essay, so I’ll try to keep it brief. The end of the Minimalism documentary brings it home with the natural implications of a wholly minimalist philosophy: We want communal, equitable, lovey-dovey living. Communist ideals are elevated as the poster child minimalist decries Western materialism.  There is no celebration for the freedom we have in navigating a free market, but rather a vilifying of an excessive free market. As enticing as some of these thoughts may be, I think we’d all be wise to remember they lead to oppression. And, as outrageous and twisted as some of our commercials are, I’d still like to be the one in control of deciding to turn it off, not having the government be the arbiter of what is meaningful for me. So, until it gets to the point that an advertisement physically grips me and makes me stand there slack-jawed in consumption, I must, for the sake of freedom, take ownership of my own media consumption.

government

It’s a Dead-End

I absolutely give a resounding “yes” to the idea that bondage to stuff can smother our ability to really live life to the hilt. But, by the same token, our commitment to a movement like Minimalism also serves to distract us from answering life’s bigger questions. Yes, it starts conversations, but–like materialism–it’s only a facade, and so it never finishes the conversations. If you pursue this idea, note how many times you hear a minimalist say he is trying to find more meaning. Yet, no one reports actually finding meaning. Instead, the journey of Minimalism itself becomes a futile gospel.

Friend, I’m here to testify that I’ve felt that longing that the minimalist claims to pursue. It’s an aching need for something beyond this world. And, I’m here to testify that it’s the only the height, love, and depth of the immense all-consuming love of Jesus Christ that will fill our aching hearts. There is no hole he cannot fill. There is no height he cannot reach. There is no depth to which He cannot go. I know because he has met me there, and he has filled it overflowing.

Go forth and purchase guilt-free and wisely. Guard yourself from possessions or false ideals. And, remember that there’s a purpose worth pursuing. And, it’s far greater than Minimalism.

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15 thoughts on “The Problem with Minimalism (And How I’m OK With Consumption)

  1. I agree with you that being minimalist does not solve all the problems that you have. But I do think that minimalism brings some enlightenment to those who cannot think for themselves when it comes to get something. I think to live more economically and cherish what we have is fundamental and not always think that we are the owner of everything, rather than a manager of everything is also important.
    What I would call an ideal material lifestyle is to have enough possession. The possession serves us a joyful purpose, rather than we end serving and taking care of the stuff we own grudgingly.
    That’s just my thoughts.

  2. Started to leave this comment on IG and then it got way too long! Writing this on my phone so my thoughts might be a bit scattered…

    I’ve not seen the documentary, but I loved reading through your points. I wrote about this some years ago when we moved from a 2,100 sf house to an 1,100 sf apartment with 3 kids under the age of 2. It was Oklahoma and my third was actually born right after a blizzard. When the movers delivered all our boxes they went straight to the ceiling and we knew we were going to have to make a drastic change, enter minimalism. It wasn’t really a buzz word back in 2011 but I personally learned so much through the process. I had to pick one stroller out of my three (when you’ve got 3 kids under 2 you’ve got the double, the single, and the umbrella ?) and part with a lot of “extras”, a lot of baby gear, kitchen gadgets, toys and clothes. We ended up donating about a third of our stuff to friends and Goodwill, and I would literally stand and pray over our things as my husband would leave with each haul. We’ve done this periodically throughout our lives, gone without something when the heart beat of our home has been too full of stuff with less of an emphasis on people. We’ve also lived without just to learn a lesson, trying to be careful to listen to what the Holy Spirit calls us to. We once, voluntarily, lived without a refrigerator for 3 months because we knew others around the world didn’t have one and we wanted to know what that felt like. I say all of this to say, the reasons you saw displayed in the documentary come from what seems to be a very limited slice of Westernized culture, whether they want to admit it or not. I’ve also seen it on plenty of blogs with the capsule wardrobe mindset. We lived for 3 years with 3 kids in colder weather and minimalism was totally doable, but I think it’s the principle and a personal call by the Holy Spirit that I defined us by that, not a documentary with a category or a trend we were trying to live up to.

    I loved your points on capitalism and while I’m personally sick of the current romanticism of communism, I have been illuminated by what Tim Keller has explored in his talks at Google to a secular audience, to consider that our western upbringing does, in fact, shape our world view and to step back and consider how simply the area in the world in which we’re born intrinsically shapes our values. Whether we want it to or not, whether we realize it or not. We may have more blind spots than we realize. In the meantime, yes. Go forth and purchase. God bless the $9.99 portable sound machine I bought for my baby who hates to go to sleep. But if all our things were to be taken away, I am praying it would not be an earth shattering event for our family. That our children would have known what it was like to live with very little, and yes, to live with much. Our things are merely temporary and we CAN survive without a baby carrier.

    Can it be that we can sum everything up to the heart?! It so desperately wants to be filled and yet, He is the only One who can fill it.

    For further reading,

    1. Totally agreed. Love your thoughts! I hope this post didn’t come across as a manifesto for consumerism, but rather an encouragement to not feel guilty in light of what we can’t achieve in minimalism. And, I don’t intend to see capitalism through rose-colored glasses, but I do have a low tolerance for false dichotomies, and that’s where the documentary and I parted ways. Overall, I can chew on the meat and spit out the bones of this philosophy, and that leaves me with intentional living, which can always use more examinations. I so appreciate your example!

        1. I’m just encouraged that we can talk about this. In the end, the awareness is key, and so I’m so encouraged by the different perspectives. :)

  3. Great points! I especially love the “It’s Privilaged” section. I would like to add that you have to have the privilege of extra time to be a minimalist. I have kitchen appliances and tools that I’m just not privledge enough to toss because I would never have the time too cook with out them.

    1. That thought crossed my mind, too! I’m pretty thankful for my crockpot because it allows me to have more free time in the afternoon to read to my kiddos!

  4. I loved your thoughts on this! You’ve given me some things to think about. I haven’t pursued a minimalist lifestyle, but as I read your words I realized I feel a little guilty about things I buy. And I would much rather approach purchases with wisdom and gratefulness. I followed your link from the Hope*Writers Friday Shares. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with all of us!

  5. Sarah! I didn’t know you had a Blog. Really enjoyed reading this… I do a little of both :) The 5 times I’ve had to travel on airplane with a baby under one I finally learned to use on the go Go-Go Squeez meals and pouches. I will be using them for the first time today on a plane trip and man can I just say my diaper bag is almost 1/2 as heavy as the first few times. It’s simple, less struggle, no heating and perfect for traveling. So worth it. But 95% of the time I swill still make her homemade meals and use a spoon, bib, etc…

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